The financial panic of 1837 pauperized members of the middle class. Source: Library of Congress

Downward Social Mobility’s Long Literary Lineage

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Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The promise of upward social mobility is central to the American Dream, and the rags-to-riches story is a staple of American literature.

Yet, as more and more Americans slip down the socioeconomic ladder, it is worth recalling that many 19th-century novelists also grappled with the paradox of business failure in a land of opportunity.

The 19th-century economy was radically unstable, wracked by repeated cycles of boom and bust, and the years of financial panic -- 1837, 1857, 1873 and 1893 -- were pressure points that pushed families under.

In an analysis of the Federal Census for Philadelphia in 1860, the Cornell University historian Stuart Blumin found that about a tenth of the individuals in each income group had moved to a higher ranking. At the same time, downward mobility increased sharply, so that the number of those rising on the social escalator was almost exactly matched by the masses of people on their way down.

Among the latter was Henry Whiting Warner, a prosperous New York lawyer who lost a fortune acquired through speculation in Manhattan real estate in the 1837 panic.

Pastoral Simplicity

Warner’s youngest daughter, Anna Bartlett Warner, explored the social and emotional consequences of his failure in her 1852 novel, “Dollars and Cents.” The narrator, Grace Howard, looks on in horror as the family’s furniture, ornaments and heirlooms are confiscated by the sheriff after her father is declared bankrupt. As their drawing room is progressively dismantled, the family’s once-secure middle-class identity falls apart. When the Howards move to the country, Grace embraces frugality and self-sufficiency, a way of life that Warner portrays as grounded in present reality rather than the speculative future.

The 1830s were also hard times for Herman Melville’s family. His father, Allan Melvill, failed so spectacularly as an importer of luxury goods that he was forced to flee his Manhattan creditors and take a job as a store clerk in Albany. The 12-year-old Melville was withdrawn from school and put to work as a clerk in the New York State Bank.

Pale, respectable and forlorn, the hero of Melville’s 1853 story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” has the appearance of a ruined merchant. Bartleby affects a gentlemanly nonchalance, but owns only a blanket, a shoe brush and a tin basin. While his employer conducts what he sees as a safe legal business in mortgages and bonds, Melville’s hero is forced to endure the precariousness of life in a wildly fluctuating market.

Another classic American author, Stephen Crane, came from a family that was slipping downward. His father was a prominent Methodist minister who lost his position after a doctrinal dispute. Crane’s mother worked as a temperance lecturer, supplementing the family income by taking in boarders.

In 1893, Crane lived in a Manhattan rooming house when panic again hit the New York stock market and the economy plunged into a long recession. Crane’s response was to tour the Bowery’s saloons and soup kitchens, gathering material in almost sociological fashion for “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” which was published in 1893. As the long downturn pushed white-collar workers toward the margins of the working class, Crane’s novel expressed the middle-class fear of falling.

2007 Recession

Similar anxieties have resurfaced. Paul Auster’s “Sunset Park,” one of the first novels to tackle the subject of the most recent recession, charts the downward trajectory of Miles Heller, a college dropout who has rejected the trappings of a relatively privileged life as the son of a Manhattan publisher. Miles works on a crew trashing out foreclosed homes in south Florida. He begins a romance with Pilar Sanchez, a girl from a working-class, Mexican-American family, and ends up living in a squat in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn.

Also sheltering there are Bing Nathan, who runs a junkshop selling manual typewriters, mechanical watches and rotary telephones; Ellen Brice, an artist who works for a real-estate agent; Alice Bergstrom, a graduate student at Columbia University, and her boyfriend, Jake Baum, a fiction writer who has given up trying to scrape by on his salary as a part-time teacher at a community college. Little separates the occupants of the Brooklyn squat from the Sanchez family in terms of economic security and future prospects.

The current reality of squeezed incomes and precarious employment has led a variety of commentators, including Thomas Frank and Peter Gosselin (now an analyst at Bloomberg Government), to describe middle-class families as either “falling behind” or treading a perilous “high wire.”

In terms of exposure to economic risk, it seems little has changed since the 19th century. Fear of falling might have produced some of the great literature of the past. But as Auster’s novel shows, the U.S. could still do with a stronger safety net.

(Andrew Lawson is a principal lecturer in English literature at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author of “Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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